Bringing big data science to Africa

Data centre Copyright: Image by dlohner from Pixabay

Speed read

  • Africa lacks capacity and appropriate infrastructure for big data initiatives
  • Rwanda is to host the continent’s first hub on big data on the SDGs
  • Its success will depend on African governments support and access to datasets

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

[CAPETOWN] Africa is set to establish its first big data hub, boosting knowledge sharing and information extraction from complex data sets.

The hub will enable the continent to access and analyse timely data relating to the Sustainable Development Goals for evidence-based decision making, says Oliver Chinganya, director of the Africa Statistics Centre at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

According to a study, big data is impacting positively in almost every sphere of life, such as in health, aviation, banking, military intelligence and space science.

The study says that big data hosted by Africa could be a powerhouse in healthcare, supporting diagnosis, treatment prescriptions, healthcare systems monitoring and digital surveillance to track epidemics.

“The establishment of this data hub will allow Africa not to be left behind in the data revolution.”

Yusuf Murangwa, National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda

This happened during the west Africa’s Ebola crises where data scientists tapped into the massive data from phone companies to visualise population movements of Ebola patients and forecast how the disease can spread.

Detailed maps showing Ebola patients movements were produced and used by the authorities to get best places to set up treatment centres, and to devise means to limit travel to control the disease.

In a memorandum of understanding between Rwanda and Ethiopia-based (UNECA) signed this month, the hub will be established at the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR).

“The establishment of this data hub will allow Africa not to be left behind in the data revolution,” says Yusuf Murangwa, director-general of the NISR. “At the moment, in Africa we have challenges of access to big data, like Earth observation data from satellites.”

Chinganya tells SciDev.Net that, the hub will boost sharing of knowledge on newly-developed statistical methods and tools, while also providing training on the use of big data and data science for development.

Users will include members of the regional African statistical community, the private sector, academic institutions and civil society, Chinganya says.

“It is… in its infancy stage,” adds Chinganya. “The hub is expected to start as soon as the implementation strategy is finalised by the end of the second quarter of 2020, but it’s dependent on many factors, including the global pandemic of COVID-19, which is putting restrictions on movement and working patterns."
The Kigali hub is among other hubs being planned in Brazil, China and the United Arab Emirates, according to a report of the global working group on big data for official statistics released by the United Nations Economic and Social Council’s Statistical Commission in December.

The regional hub in Rwanda “would support capacity development in the area of big data for official statistics for Africa, in collaboration with international and regional agencies,” the report adds.

Chinganya says that in Africa the biggest challenge of data science is the lack of capacity and appropriate infrastructure required to aid big data initiatives, and inadequate investment.

Across the global platform, Chinganya explains, many data sources will be openly shared. Mechanisms will also be developed to enable selective data sharing between the different hubs, he says.

The repository will allow computer systems to exchange and use information and access will be based on different levels of provisions of rights to data from the Economic Commission for Africa database, according to Chinganya. Data will be collected based on the UN fundamental principles of official statistics that protects civil liberties.
No budget has been set as yet, says Murangwa, adding that some of the hub’s operational and maintenance costs are expected to come from projects and training activities.

Jean-Paul van Belle, director of the Centre for Information Technology and National Development in Africa, at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, says that the creation of a big data hub is important for Africa.

“Much of big data about Africans is currently sitting with Californian companies (Google and Facebook). An African hub, where we can hopefully get corporate organisations and governments to give access to big datasets for the social good and development or innovation, would be amazing,” van Belle explains, adding that the likely success of the hub would come from combining datasets from different sources.

“For many of the SDGs, we currently lack data.”

The hub’s impact will depend on its resources, especially personnel, the backing of African governments and the ability to obtain datasets, he adds.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.